Once upon a time, there was a great weekly TV show called “Mad About You”. It was about the life adventures of a young married couple named Paul and Jamie. In one episode, they are frantically trying to get their first Thanksgiving meal organized for their families. Jamie looks at a recipe, panics, and says “Allspice. What is that?”. Her husband Paul attempts to calm her down by saying “It’s a bunch of spices mixed together — all spice. It’s all good.”
Just before Christmas, I was looking through our various cooking magazines for a new recipe to try, and I saw a recipe for hot apple cider that called for, you guessed it, allspice. I knew it wasn’t “a bunch of spices mixed together”, but what was it? Time for some research!
You and I would have to go south, to Jamaica or Central America, to see where allspice “pimenta dioica” calls home. It could be shrub size, or it could grow taller and provide shade for plants such as coffee. It is now grown in many parts of the world that have tropical growing conditions, although if you and I had our very own solarium, we might be able to grow it in a large flowerpot. It sounds like it would be very happy in a pot, and could be treated like a regular houseplant, with normal water and soil requirements. But we would have to remember that the plant is dioecious, which means that each plan is either a boy plant or a girl plant, and we would need both if we were seriously trying to have a crop of allspice berries!
Even hundreds of years ago, the allspice was recognized as a valuable spice commodity. Christopher Columbus visited Jamaica on his second cruise, and learned about allspice there. Probably he, and many other visitors to the island, thought it was a great thing, because care was taken not to allow export of the plant from Jamaica. Determined spice merchants tried to grow the plant from seed: no luck. Guess why? It’s an interesting little factoid: the pimenta seed must pass through a bird’s stomach to germinate. The theory is that the temperature or the acid in the bird’s stomach sets the stage for germination to begin once the seed reaches land again. Who knew!
So now, what is allspice? Allspice is the dried fruit of the pimenta plant. The seeds are picked when they are green and allowed to dry in the sun. If you have a package of pickling spice in your pantry, you might find allspice in there. It’s the round, dark brown spice that is larger and smoother than a peppercorn. Allspice is the star ingredient in Jamaican cooking, but it has become an important spice staple in the pantries of many cultures. Some cultures use allspice in savory dishes such as stews, while in North America, allspice is used mostly in baking. In its other form, ground allspice is a rich brown powder, with a heavenly, fragrant aroma that takes me back into Mom’s warm cozy kitchen, eagerly waiting for her delicious baking to come out of the oven so I could sample it as we shared a cup of tea!
Here’s another little factoid: back in the 1600’s, some English travellers said that allspice was indeed a mixture of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and that’s where it got the name. In fact, I even found a recipe for an allspice substitute, if you’re baking and have no allspice in the cupboard. It’s equal parts of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.
The Yorkton and District Horticultural Society would like to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas! May health and happiness be yours in the coming year! Happy Holidays!